Before screening an early cut of Bonnie & Clyde for Jack Warner in 1967, Warren Beatty told the aging studio head that the film was an homage to Warner Bros. gangster movies. Warner famously responded, “What the fuck is an homage?” Warner was soon to find out, not only from the unprecedented financial success of Bonnie & Clyde, but the proliferation of subsequent American films both acknowledging debts to cinematic forbearers and wearing a European influence on their sleeves.
While Bonnie & Clyde remains an indelible American classic and, along with The Graduate, is often discussed as responsible for inaugurating Hollywood’s renaissance period, In Cold Blood, written and directed by Richard Brooks, deserves equal praise for its innovative, if sometimes questionable, blend of documentary technique and narrative storytelling. In terms of sheer influence, the film’s legacy is almost too proliferate to quickly define, shucking previous standards of Hollywood filmmaking through on-location shoots and an intensive concentration on true-crime pathology. Even Truman Capote’s book, a “nonfiction novel,” as he called it, focuses extensively on the victims. Brooks’s film, by contrast, is consumed by a delve into the minds of its two executioners.
In Cold Blood charts the misguided efforts of Perry (Robert Blake) and Dick (Scott Wilson), a couple of shit-kicking ex-cons whose robbery plans, following a false lead from Dick’s cellmate, go horribly awry. Brooks stages these potentially pulpy threads with a virtuoso balance between character development and establishing the rural setting. In the opening scene, as a bus pulls out of its station, the rainy night partially obscures its Kansas City destination. Inside, a young child heads to the back of the bus, where Perry’s mug is revealed in startling, chiaroscuro close-up. He could be Edward G. Robinson from Little Caesar and, in early scenes, Brooks and cinematographer Conrad Hall invite such a reading by amplifying the film’s noirish visual palette.
The film’s psychological portrait of both Perry and Dick supersedes its allegiances to generic convention. Editor Peter Zinner stages Perry’s fragile emotional state through a series of fantasies and flashbacks; in the former, he’s a singer in Las Vegas, channeling Johnny Cash for the live audience. But the flashbacks are far less hopeful or celebratory. In them, he’s a young boy, watching his drunken mother be abused at the hands of several men. And in a particularly stunning sequence, Perry is triggered by Dick’s encounter with a Mexican prostitute, which sends the film into a confused frenzy, as if blending past trauma and present anxiety into a single, indistinguishable occurrence.
Brian De Palma utilized an identical technique during an important reveal in Obsession almost a decade later, but its usage is stronger here, with Brooks placing Perry between his haunted past, an aspirin addiction, and a lingering hope that his life could intersect with cinematic myth. At one point, he references The Treasure of the Sierra Madre not as a piece of art, but as if the movie were actually alive and capable of being embodied.
Meanwhile, Dick’s the “all-American boy,” but only in exterior form; underneath, he’s a vacant sociopath, obsessed with shotguns and petty crime as a right of passage. He boasts that “Stealing and cheating is the national pastime,” but when he’s pegged for the quadruple murder, he cries and begs for mercy. Somewhere, conviction and empathy went missing, but Brooks smartly displaces a single culprit to explain their crimes. Maybe these boys really are to blame, as investigators assess—a couple of bad apples. By withholding the actual crime scene until late in the film, which then unfolds in minute-by-minute detail, Brooks invites, but finally dispels scapegoating assessments by locating Perry’s deep-seated pain as a product of his environment and, on the whole, no fault of his own.
To that end, the film’s effectiveness depends on the extent to which one buys into its psychological diagnosis. In fact, Brooks’s portrait of these killers as victims of childhood abuse aligns In Cold More more with a giallo or slasher flick than noir, despite the use of intense white lights and deep pools of black. In Cold Blood, then, recalls the work of Jacques Tourneur for its pessimistic assessment of human nature’s self-inflicted wounds, irrevocably chaining its beings to their past misgivings. Tourneur liked to jump from horror to noir, with films like The Leopard Man and Out of the Past, and explored such themes in both modes. But In Cold Blood saw an even darker future. When one investigator ponders aloud, asking who would commit such a heinous crime, the other pauses, then flatly states: “These days? Take your pick on any crowded street.”
Though In Cold Blood has already seen North American releases on DVD in 2003 and Blu-ray in 2010 from Sony, the Criterion Collection’s 4K digital restoration, with a cracking 5.1 DTS-HD mix of Quincy Jones’s score, is among the audio-visual highlights of 2015. A perfect storm of sorts, the work of the film’s technical talents, like cinematographer Conrad Hall and editor Peter Zinner, have arguably never looked better on home video than they do on this disc. Elements that might have been hampered or gone missing in the past, like how raindrops on a window look like tears on Perry’s face, are now fully restored with incredible clarity and density. Nearly every frame looks immaculate, carefully calibrated and cleaned to suit Brooks’s original intentions. Likewise, Jones’s score has never sounded better than it does here, booming through at appropriate moments, then layering in excellently with dialogue or other musical tracks, like when Perry chillingly sings "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."
A treasure trove. Over two full hours of interviews cover nearly every facet of production. Brooks speaks for himself in a 1988 interview with Cinéma Cinemas, but biographer Douglass K. Daniel commends the late director as a masterful storyteller, while nuancing Brooks’s "tyrant reputation." Daniel insists Brooks was a humanist first, resolute in his belief that "humanity needs work," and concludes by explaining Brooks’s intent for In Cold Blood to be an anti-capital punishment film. In another interview, John Bailey talks for almost half an hour about Conrad Hall, but also the film’s use of lens flares and "embrace of the accidental," as Bailey calls it. Furthermore, Gary Giddens talks Quincy Jones’s "control of the material," while commending the composer’s work with sound mixer Jack Solomon. Finally, Bobbie O’Steen explains how editor Peter Zinner always trusted his audience’s intelligence when cutting a film and helped construct new forms of Hollywood storytelling by borrowing techniques from European counterparts. Also included is the marvelous short documentary, "With Love from Truman," directed by Albert and David Maysles, which cuts together interviews and candid footage of Truman Capote as he travelled around Kansas during his book’s release tour. Additionally, two NBC interviews with Capote further detail the author’s intentions to make a "nonfiction novel," while an essay by Chris Fujiwara discusses, among many things, how Brooks’s film seeks to redeem reality. The film’s trailer rounds out this mammoth disc.
A shotgun is not just a shotgun in Richard Brooks’s In Cold Blood, one of the Criterion Collection’s finest Blu-ray packagings for a single film in the past half decade.